Raynoma Gordy Singleton, an Early Motown Force, Dies at 79
By BEN SISARIODEC. 4, 2016
Raynoma Gordy and Barney Ales, left, and Berry Gordy Jr., far right, in a Detroit nightclub around 1960. Barney Ales Collection
Raynoma Gordy Singleton, who played a vital role in the early days of Motown as the business partner and second wife of Berry Gordy Jr., the record label’s founder and patriarch, died on Nov. 11 in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was 79.
The cause was brain cancer, her family said. Her death was not immediately announced.
In most versions of Motown’s founding myth, Mr. Gordy, a former boxer and Detroit autoworker, created his musical enterprise — a series of interconnected labels and other companies — in early 1959 to gain greater control over his budding career as a songwriter and producer.
But by his side from the earliest days was Ms. Singleton, whom Mr. Gordy met when she auditioned as a singer in 1958, impressing him with her perfect pitch. From then until 1964, when she left Motown for the first time, Ms. Singleton helped Mr. Gordy run some of his most important businesses, including Jobete, the company that managed Motown’s music publishing rights.
She also created arrangements for Motown’s studio musicians and taught future stars like Smokey Robinson the fundamentals of music theory. It was Ms. Singleton who, in 1959, found the former photography studio at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit that became the label’s headquarters, known as Hitsville U.S.A.
Many of Ms. Singleton’s achievements, however, are little known. In part that may be because Motown’s golden era in the mid-1960s, when it churned out Top 10 hits by the dozen, came after Ms. Singleton left the company and divorced Mr. Gordy, said Adam White, who wrote the book “Motown: The Sound of Young America,” published this year, with the former Motown executive Barney Ales.
“So much happened subsequently” to Ms. Singleton’s time there, Mr. White said in an interview, “that it’s obscured the importance of her role at that critical early stage.”
Yet as Ms. Singleton saw it, Mr. Gordy himself was the cause of her obscurity.
In her book “Berry, Me, and Motown: The Untold Story” (1990), Ms. Singleton bitterly accused her former husband — whom she called “that thief of dreams” — of denying her credit for helping to found the label, and of persuading her to remove her name from company legal papers, leaving her with no financial stake. After the Motown label was sold in 1988 for $61 million, she said, she received only a plaque.
Raynoma Mayberry was born in Detroit on March 8, 1937. Her father, Ashby, was a janitor at a Cadillac plant; he and her mother, Lucille, encouraged her musical talent at a young age. At Cass Technical High School, Raynoma learned to play 11 instruments, including the harp.
Raynoma Gordy Singleton’s memoir. McGraw-Hill
She married Charles Liles, a saxophonist, in 1955, and divorced him two years later. After meeting Mr. Gordy in 1958, she quickly became his business and romantic partner, and in 1959 she gave birth to their son, Kerry; she and Mr. Gordy married the following year.
In Motown’s infancy, Ms. Singleton held a variety of roles. As one of the Rayber Voices — the name was a combination of Raynoma and Berry — she was a backup singer on many early songs, including Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me,” the inaugural record on Tamla, Mr. Gordy’s first label.
She also worked as a producer under the name Miss Ray. And as a label executive, she signed the first contract for one of Motown’s most important early talents: Stevie Wonder.
Ms. Singleton and Mr. Berry had already decided to divorce, when she was sent to New York in 1963 to open a branch of Jobete. But their relationship collapsed the next year when she bootlegged 5,000 copies of Mary Wells’s single “My Guy,” peddling the record out of a silver Lincoln Continental; she spent a night in jail.
According to Ms. Singleton’s book, she agreed to a settlement with Motown to avoid being prosecuted. She signed a general release from the label, she said, in exchange for $10,000 and monthly payments including child support.
She divorced Mr. Gordy in 1964, and the next year she married Eddie Singleton, a songwriter. The two started a new label, Shrine, in Washington. But after a few years, the label failed and Ms. Singleton returned to the Motown fold, for a time working as an assistant to Diana Ross. Her marriage to Mr. Singleton also ended in divorce.
Despite her break with Mr. Gordy, Ms. Singleton continued to have various affiliations with Motown. In the late 1970s she managed Apollo, a band that included her son Kerry and was signed to a Motown label. In 1983, credited as Ray Singleton, she was an executive producer of “Somebody’s Watching Me,” the hit album by Rockwell (a stage name for Kennedy Gordy, another Motown scion).
Already estranged from the Motown circle by the time she published her book — she called her status an “exile” — she eventually reconciled with Mr. Gordy. In his 1994 memoir, “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown,” Mr. Gordy disputed some of the claims in her book. Ms. Singleton apologized to him personally, he wrote, and the two had become “closer than ever.”
Ms. Singleton, who lived in Woodland Hills, is survived by her sons, Cliff Liles, Kerry Gordy and Eddie Singleton Jr.; her daughter, Rya Singletary; four grandchildren; and a sister, Juanita Dickerson.